One of the biggest obstacles in understanding Russian foreign policy of late for NATO is that it still seems a bit too tied to American assumptions. There seems to be an element of purposeful animosity in the way Russia is viewed, analyzed, and engaged, especially at the so-called expert level and most prominently within the now Republican-controlled United States Congress.
Perhaps one of the worst examples of this ‘analytical animosity’ comes with the over-reliance on ‘insider knowledge’ without actually vetting the source’s objectivity. As we will see below, what would be automatically deemed a horribly flawed research structure in academia, full of selection bias, too often ends up powering the opinions of major decision-makers in Washington DC and is subsequently transferred to NATO thinking.
None of this is meant to say NATO, or the United States in turn, shouldn’t be critical of Russian motivations or Russian interests. In many areas we are naturally pure rivals, let alone the long intense history of competition between them. I am simply critical of the foreign policy hubris America so often exhibits and ultimately passes on to NATO. I offer this not as a plea for diplomatic humility or being a better global partner: on the contrary, I simply fear the presumptuousness of NATO posturing comes off in such a way that makes NATO look silly rather than intimidating. That is the real problem. Talking the talk without ever walking the walk with Russia serves no purpose other than to undermine your own self-perception of impressiveness. To wit: western commentators need to stop crowing about ‘Russian exceptionalism.’ There is a humiliating irony being dangerously missed when they speak of such things. To the Russians the only other country in the world with a richer, deeper, and more pronounced sense of exceptionalism is the United States and its affiliated organizations like NATO. American sides criticizing Russia for exceptionalism is like the Great White telling the Bull Shark not to be so aggressive in the water.
I believe this is part of the reason you can detect such frustration and irritation in the statements and positions of Putin and Lavrov, who sometimes almost seem exasperated by the situation, fighting off a narrative they really aren’t interested in but are constantly being asked on the world stage to address. This is especially apparent when the ridiculous subject of Ukraine joining NATO comes up. Lavrov stated during the Welsh summit that NATO should avoid ‘derailing’ the process both Russia and Ukraine are trying to hammer out. Worse still is how incredibly cruel this line of argument is from NATO towards Ukraine: there is no chance that Ukraine will be invited to join the group. While Obama says officially to the microphones that all options will remain open for global security and peace, France and Germany are both formally opposed to offering membership to Ukraine. As long as that is the case, Obama’s comments are just empty gestures, more a tease to Ukraine than a deterrent to Russia. Does anyone in their right mind think Russia worries more about microphone side comments from the American President compared to official French and German policy when it concerns NATO?
Russia’s actions within, around, and about Ukraine are no doubt self-serving, in pursuit of its own priorities, and with only a modicum of consideration as to what is in the long-term interests of Ukraine. More pertinently, it couches those actions with declarations of constitutionality, stability, normalization, and international assistance. And in doing so Russia, in its own mind and with some foreign policy evidence, thinks it is acting as the United States has countless times in countless arenas over countless years, thereby making any NATO concern or protest over its actions irrelevant and hypocritical in its eyes. This is the true nature of REAL foreign policy power to Russia: to do as you please while getting everyone else to drag their feet and ultimately do nothing. Such old-school realist POWER has not left the global stage, despite all the good NATO intentions to create greater adherence to international law.
Perhaps NATO’s best strategy would be to deftly engineer a path not beholden to American ‘Cold War Triumphalism.’ In basic terms, since Russia lost the Cold War it was and should be treated as a de facto defeated nation. This triumphalism has arguably never left American decision-making power, given that the advent of this attitude began with President Bill Clinton and has lasted through three presidencies (two Democrat, one Republican), totaling six terms and 24 years. In other words, the American attitudinal perspective toward Russia has witnessed a literal generation passing where the United States has felt justified in selective cooperation, one-way bargaining, uneven playing fields and reluctance on its own part to bury the ghosts of the past because said ghosts give it a decided political advantage. But that political advantage hurts NATO relevance if it is made to adhere to the same attitude. It is clear the United States does not seem to understand that the geostrategic prom queen in the end isn’t really a queen, after all, and on the global dance floor there is always more than one self-professed belle of the ball. NATO needs to be the emcee of this dance, rather than the man stuck holding the American prom queen’s corsage. The former role gives it great relevance. The latter gives it none. The choice, hopefully, will be up to NATO.
The real problem NATO must try to avoid is that too many powerful decision-makers in the West feel a bit bamboozled and outplayed. They feel, rightly or wrongly, as if they have ended up with proverbial diplomatic egg on their faces and they don’t like it. Even worse, they cannot stand the possibility that this game of chicken ended with only one round and no opportunity to regain the upper hand. Thus, it really isn’t about how horrible it was for Russia to ‘annex’ Crimea (with Crimean consent) and do it basically without any violence. What is most horrible to these strategists still stuck in and/or pining for the return of a Cold War environment full of purpose and dire circumstances is that they won’t get the chance to beat Russia back or deliver a diplomatic defeat of the same intensity that they feel they just themselves received. Thus, this situation cannot just be about Crimea. Russia must not be satisfied with this as the end game. There simply must be another shoe to drop or chess piece to be moved. Because…just because: because Russians aren’t supposed to be diplomatically agile and astute. And they most certainly cannot be strategically deft and subtle. At least, not when they are compared to their counterparts in the West, who think Russians are rash; Russians are emotional; Russians are capricious; Russians are sneaky; and quite frankly, Russians are a bit daft. All of these things they can be because all of these things suit the players at the other end of the chess board. And for this very simple and seemingly minor reason alone, Russia is far better off letting Crimea be its one and only move on the board and then chuckle dementedly as its rivals worry about an ‘expansionism’ that is not coming. What victory could be better than checkmate and confounding your opponents who had previously thought they had completely understood your psyche, methods, objectives, and purpose?
If NATO can begin to engage Russia in a manner that recognizes and embraces this perception of reality, then it will have a strategic relevance that will go far beyond the United States, the European Union, or Ukraine. For it will be the only organization on the board seeing Russia as the Russians themselves see it. Once you have that vision there will be far many more diplomatic moves available.
Chinese soft power winning hearts and minds
Soft power cheaper than hard power, winning hearts and minds of the people, is prerequisite for the state in international politics. Joseph Nye, the pioneer of soft power argues “It is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”. Solely relying on hard power in digital era proves to be counterproductive for the state, tarnishing its soft image, causing destruction, squandering a colossal amount of money being spent on military. Seduction, likewise, appears to be more effective and more instrumental than coercion in interstate relations.
Rise of China is imminent, for rising power in 21st, soft power is as crucial as hard power. China’s preoccupation with its soft power has resultantly been accelerating by leaps and bounds, giving positive image to the world that it would be a benign power in the foreseeable future, crafting consent rather than coercion in its foreign policy. China in the last couple of centuries remained isolated from the world, intimidated by the external powers, has currently been emerging as a dominant player on account of its robust economy, initiating Belt and Road Initiative(BRI), making a headway in technological development, settling territorial disputes with its neibouring states, contributing in UN peacekeeping mission, supporting countries in ongoing pandemic disease that invariably promote its soft power spectacularly.
China possesses components of soft power, having 5,000 years of civilization, 1.3 billion people and 960 million square kilometers of territory. China, remained a great power, the Tang dynasty from the seventh century to the tenth century conceives to be a golden era of Chinese history. Glorifying Chinese civilization and history by Chinese statecrafts as their soft power is on the card. China till December 1, 2015 had built 500 Confucius institutes and 1,000 Confucius classrooms in 134 countries with enrolment of nearly 1.9 million students, promoting Chinese language, culture, and facilitating cultural exchanges.
China, presently remains the hub of foreign students. In 1978 there were merely 2,000 foreign students studying in mainland China, in 2007 the number outstripped to 200,000. Under current juncture, nearly 28,000 Pakistani students are studying in China. China by granting foreign scholarships wishes to exploit foreign talent, ensuing strengthening of its economy, resulting in its soft power projection.
The classic book titled “Research Outline for China’s Cultural Soft Power” authored by Guozuo Zhang. Zhang in the book sheds lights on Chinese culture and its civilization arguing that soft power is deeply entrenched in Chinese history giving reference of Chinese sixth century BC strategist Sun Tzu’s book “Art of War”. The writer quotes Sun Tzu” The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without a war.” “The best tactics is to take by strategy,” “Those who win people’s heart can win the world.”Sun Tzu’s adages unambiguously illustrate functions of soft power in Chinese history.
Another insightful book titled “Charm Offensive How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World” authored by Joshua Kurlantzick. Kurlantzick in the book states that China’s charm offensive as soft power triggered in 2000s,attributed to desired stability and harmony with all its fourteen neighboring states. Chinese charm offensive maintains that “Safeguarding peace, promoting development and enhancing cooperation, which is the common desire of all peoples, represents the irresistible historical trend,”. The term hepingjueqi, or Peaceful Rise coined by Zheng Bijian a renowned and senior adviser to the Chinese leadership, was soon inculcated into Chinese leaders’ speeches and in foreign policy.
The term Peaceful Rise is being used tactfully in Chinese foreign policy reflects its soft power; realizing its fourteen neibouring states that China unlike the US believes in peaceful co-existence and shuns warmongering strategies. If China eschews Peaceful Rise in its foreign policy, its neibouring states by all means would become sceptical about Chinese belligerent intentions.
China is increasingly using public diplomacy as a soft power. In 2010, the Beijing Foreign Studies University, launched China’s first ever Public Diplomacy Research Centre, aimed at orchestrating positive image of China, invalidating distorted overseas reports regarding China, improving surroundings of Chinese peripheral states and influencing policy decisions of foreign countries. China through public diplomacy has successfully been trying to reinforce its narratives as the saying of Nye goes “narratives become the new currency of soft power”.
Under current circumstances, Covid-19 a highly contagious virus has tightened its grip on the entire world, states are in dire need of help instead of looking towards the US title towards China. Realistically, speaking, Covid-19 oriented in China should have tarnished its image instead China seems to be a torch bearer of the world, supporting states, providing medial aids. Nouriel Roubini, an American economist at NYU, maintains that during the pandemic “China is building its soft power,” he further reiterates that China assures to the world that ‘‘Our political system is better, our technological model is better, our economic model is better.”
To sum up, China has bad reputation in the US; The US and Western states including India will inevitably strive to malign Chinese soft image, demonizing it’s an authoritarian regime, human rights violation in China, its debt trap policy under BRI and labor exploitation in African states. China, thus, needs to engaged into introspection and should ponder over these areas in order to further bolster its soft power.
Covid19: Upgrading Diplomacy and Statecraft to prepare the new normal
The world is abruptly changing and this requires adaptation. The transformations are targeting not only individuals and specific countries, but the entire international ecosystem. The pandemic will only accelerate the trends we have seen for years in global politics, so the window of opportunity is closing for those who want to play an increased role in the post-Covid world, but do not fully understand or master the tools necessary to succeed in such a complicated context. I will sketch some of the elements that diplomats and decision-makers involved in international politics have to consider as they seek to navigate the new contours of power politics. Beyond talk of wolf warriors or video summits – and fatigue – diplomacy deserves a strategic comeback during and after corona: international affairs professionals needs to be conversant in both the old and new paradigms; in Western, Eastern, non-aligned and Global South vernaculars; and in both technological and old school human terrain navigation. To well serve their countries and organizations, diplomats (and also, as intellectual framework providers, Diplomatic Academies and Institutes) will have to be more adaptable than ever and willing to quickly learn and deploy new tools and techniques.
In this quest, one first has to acknowledge the challenges on the substance (beyond communications issues, such as disinformation in the latest form of the infodemic) and understand that they pose problems we never had to face before. Climate change will bring about coastal entropic systems collapse, desertification and food insecurity, with potential consequences related to increased refugee influx, civil wars and inter-country tensions. Pandemics are also here to stay: Covid19 is only the first major outbreak of this decade and, with the right technology, almost any country with minimal biotech capabilities can turn sneezing into anti-personnel weapons. Catalyzed by great power competition, deglobalization, protectionism, and the restructuring of global value chains, non-market and imperial economics revival will become a staple of the new era. Tech dominance and informational supremacy will be a highly sought after prize and the competition will only increase. Strategically, with the rise of China and a relative decline of Europe and the US, we should be ready for a world order that values a different type of multilateralism and is polycentric and non-Western based. The Gulf, as an ambitious global hotspot abundant in global and regional medium powers, is watching power shifts closely and adapting its strategies and actions accordingly. It also has, via Saudi Arabia and its chairmanship of the G20, a key role to play in “annus horibilis” 2020 global solutions.
Institutional transition and reform is complicated not so much because of inertia, but because since World War Two we were asked to focus and solve one problem at a time, by keeping all other variables constant. Given the above mentioned changes, to cater to institutional transition needs, we have to develop our capabilities to include the most unusual and un-practiced skills and knowledge that now has become, in our estimate, a must have in order to navigate from an age of certainty to a state of continuous flux. By being programmed to combine technological foresight, cultural intelligence, transversal inter-generational multicultural and integrated disciplinary approaches to statecraft and grand strategy, diplomats 2.0 (during and after corona) will be ready to engage comprehensively with a wide range of situations, geographies, and objectives. Research and innovation in international relations, grand strategy, statecraft and identity development strategies should be combined with communication efforts that integrate tools related to cognitive patterns discovery, subversive frameworks neutralisation, and multi-stage communication strategy development.
Organizations need to function more like networked capabilities and teams of teams, rather than relying on traditional multi-tiered track diplomacy and traditional engagement practices. In my experience, the more non-central and non-mainstream actors are, the more they will engage asymmetrically. Furthermore, their engagement tends to be more reputational and personalised than the traditional Western expectations of structure, objectivity, and calculated gains would have us believe. For a long time, with the exception of the actions of great powers, the policy and academic discussion has focused on how the international environment overwhelmingly shapes domestic politics. The international will continue to matter, but we will see a strong pushback from national politics to shape the conversation in global affairs. Diplomats, as the platform between the state and the rest of the world, are on the forefront of meeting the challenge. The context of economic crisis and uncertainty generated by the pandemic will mean additional pressure on mainstream parties and a threat to political stability, so populism and protectionism will also affect diplomatic action, and nationalism diminish diplomatic efforts.
Based on the experience of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, the Nordics and the Baltics, one can encourage International Relations and Diplomatic institutes and academies to develop general public content and training to increase societal resilience, governance and democratic literacy, and citizen esprit de corps. From an elements of power perspective, these vectors need to be developed within every national strategic studies institution to complement the traditional areas of preparedness for which nation states prepare. Five topics are particularly important, in my opinion: T-profile development of people: transversal, interconnected, broad knowledge, with one vertical in depth (versus the current extremes of either breadth or ultra-specialisation); Bellingcat type of skills for information acquisition from OSINT, use of digital means, and understanding of online behaviours (social media aggregation and analysis would also play an important role); increased attention to global Architectures and competition between “Old” and “New” global and regional organisations; IP Diplomacy that focuses on networks of innovation, capital, technology and entrepreneurship – today, intellectual property diplomacy is practices by a handful of countries currently (Singapore, Switzerland, China, Israel), but will become the cornerstone of future exchanges, the same way Silicon Valley is for tech, and NY for global capital. Last but not least, each MFA Academy and IR institute should create its own simulation of the world based on AI, behavioural and statecraft modeling capabilities, and its own „handbook of world views and strategic interests”. Interestingly, in context, wargaming and redteaming of policies and strategic decisions are currently under development in a handful of institutions and will start rolling out to national security establishments towards the end of 2020.
All these points are relevant especially for countries that want to punch above their weight, both regionally and globally, especially current middle powers and aspiring middle or great powers. But they also carry lessons for other states, in case they want to deal with the pressures and risks attached to great and middle power competition in a diplomatic-efficient manner.
Beyond Twiplomacy: Diplomacy and the Digital Fast Forward
The practice of diplomacy in the virtual space is geared towards amplifying foreign policy drives and messages and forms a vital and dynamic branch of strategic communication. Now, more than ever before, we are faced with the inexorable certainty of a digital future – a future that has already begun. As COVID-19 thrusts the world’s population into their homes and compels multiple operations and processes to move online, diplomatic engagements too must be primed to fit the order and arrangement of altered circumstances. The use of the internet offers real time dissemination and exchanges in a relatively informal setting, at low financial costs and aims at shrinking the space between foreign publics and stakeholders on the one hand and foreign policy practices and practitioners on the other.
Digital diplomacy falls under the broader spectrum of public diplomacy, the roots of which can be traced to the extensive use of radio communications by both the Axis and the Allied powers during WWII. Interestingly, the digitization of diplomacy however is believed to have happened earlier when foreign ministries first began the use of telegraph services in the 19th century. In the contemporary context, digital diplomacy has been practiced primarily through social media since the innovation of an online world, the arrival of new information communication technologies and the rapid popularity of the internet.
Today, diplomats and government representatives routinely engage in both pleasantries as well as repartee on Twitter in what is now popularly known as Twiplomacy or Twitter Diplomacy. Twiplomacy is direct, often unencumbered and enables wider reach of foreign policies than traditional channels. Such online engagement can also be converted to a substantial support for foreign policies and/or agendas. It is at times assumed that Twiplomacy has shaken traditional preferences for confidentiality, hierarchy, instrumentality and top-down decision making of foreign affairs departments favouring instead the use of crisp language, visual storytelling, emotional framing, algorithmic navigation, and so on. This is an incorrect conjecture as the traditional modus operandi of foreign interaction remains equally pertinent today. What Twiplomacy has done is added a supplementary avenue of diplomatic exchange which is in keeping with contemporary circumstances.
As diplomatic exchanges thrive on Twitter and other social media platforms, the question is whether it is merely the diplomatic conversation which has moved online or whether there is more to the scope of diplomatic engagement employing digital tools in the virtual space. While the latter has been deliberated by technology stakeholders and to an extent by policy makers, its practice is yet to see the kind of flurry that is observed on Twitter almost on a daily basis. This is where the use of 5G systems, artificial intelligence, wearable technology and the applications of big data come in. Aggregation of big data can assist in the identification of disinformation campaigns while collating geospatial and sensor data for more objective, fact-based information gathering which in turn would aid the core component of diplomacy – negotiation. While the use of some of these technologies is mired in controversy, all of these will eventually find application across sectors and diplomacy too will not be an outlier.
Greater use of digital tools can assist diplomacy in broad ways. First, it ensures a quick response time. Digital tools facilitate diplomatic engagement to happen in real time and in so doing helps ease communication as well as make way for effective action in times of urgency or crisis. Second, it assists in resource mobilization in terms negotiations and building of alliances, primarily by eliminating constraints of distance and time. Third, it helps pave the way for gaining a wider understanding of public emotions and perceptions which can at times facilitate more updated policy approaches and methods of implementation.
This brings us to the dividing line between policy outreach which is designed to inform, assist, facilitate and where applicable, ameliorate global relations and the utilization of sharp power which is aimed at exerting disproportionate levels of influence to censor, manipulate and falsify information for hostile purposes. The virtual space, like many other forms of technology, faces the dual-use challenge i.e., it can serve both constructive purposes and also disruptive ones. For foreign policy this poses a considerable challenge as governments often find themselves in the middle of misinformation and disinformation campaigns which are difficult to debunk and deflate given the pace and volume of the reach that virtual networks offer. Nonetheless, this is a challenge that governments across the world must learn to tackle because the medium and the technology will not go away but rather diversify and proliferate.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already and will probably continue to suspend or reorganize most activities for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously however, engagements and functioning across the world must persist and diplomatic outreach forms a vital component of pooling in efforts to mitigate the health crisis. This involves the dissemination of information, transfers of key supplies, provisioning for the inevitable uncertainties of challenges post the pandemic and reorganizing institutions to better apprehend future exigencies. Bound by limitations on travel, world leaders are responding by convening on virtual platforms for multilateral summits like the G20 and SAARC. India’s first ever virtual bilateral summit is being planned with Australia. COVID-19 demands a fast forward from deliberations to action and foreign ministries around the world need to harness the advantages of cost and geographical inconsequence to effectively respond to the global crisis at hand and also in the process enable digitisation of diplomatic processes which can continue to be in practice in the post-Covid world.
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